What motivates us? Mastery Purpose Progress

Team around table tries to build a tower
At a workshop, several managers explored the limits of autonomy trying to build a marshmallow and spaghetti tower! How can managers provide an environment for success without killing creativity and innovation?

Autonomy is defined as the urge to direct our own lives. The research on autonomy is clear that when we can choose what we work on, we are happier and more productive. So, what is holding managers back from creating environments where employees have more control over what they do and how they do it? Some managers feel discomfort with the idea of autonomy: What if my employee gets out their lane? What if an employee strays too far beyond their skill set or knowledge base? What if I don’t like the outcome?

Notre Dame Research managers discussed autonomy and felt it important to clarify that autonomy is not a free-for-all nor is it a one-size-fits-all concept. With appropriate “guardrails” tailored to employee experience and skill and clear direction, managers can facilitate an autonomous environment that stimulates creativity and innovation. The managers' discussion yielded best practices for fostering autonomy in the workplace: 

  • Delegate authority where possible
  • Trust your workers and accept that the outcome may be different from how you would do it
  • Provide safety (no punishment for honest mistakes)
  • Provide a clear purpose and goals
  • Provide transparency
  • Ensure that employees have an understanding of their roles and how their work impacts others

Resources to support autonomy

More Research:

Manager Tools:

  • Manager Self Reflection Questions – Managers can take this assessment to get a baseline understanding of how autonomy is practiced in their workplace.
  • Coaching Prompt Questions – Managers can use these questions in 1:1 conversations with their employees. You might send them ahead of time so that the employee has time to reflect before you meet.
  • Autonomy Audit for Unit – This assessment is designed to be taken by all employees anonymously in a group setting.

If you have questions or ideas for additional resources in this playbook, please contact the Director of Finance and Administration